World's clumsiest drug smugglers - also its most audacious
December 29, 2022 | View PDF
As you will have gathered, it didn't exactly take brilliant detective work to figure out what was going on over at Dunbar Produce and Grocery. By November of 1893, word of what they were up to had been filtering up from the waterfront for at least a year and a half.
So, in late November 1893, a grand jury returned indictments against 15 people - including Blum, Dunbar, and Lotan. The charges involved smuggling more than two tons of opium and running a human-trafficking operation smuggling thousands of undocumented Chinese laborers into Portland.
The trial held the city spellbound. But Lotan and his codefendants hadn't much need to worry. The roster of court officers at this trial reads like an excerpt from the Arlington Club directory. As an added bonus, the foreman of the jury - Charles Ladd - was a close friend of James Lotan.
The trial ended with a hung jury. The word on the street was that the vote was 11 to 1; jury foreman Ladd had refused to vote to convict his friend. A new trial would have to be scheduled.
Meanwhile, Blum, having posted a $1,000 bond, promptly disappeared from the city. The rumor around town was that he had gone east to Washington, D.C., to lobby the president for a pardon.
But he returned to Portland and participated in an attempt at a retrial - and then did it again. There were a total of three trials for the accused smugglers from the Blum-Dunbar ring, and the thing dragged on well into 1895 as public and newspaper reporters alike got increasingly tired of the whole thing and as Blum got more and more "creative" in his testimony. A few of the defendants ended up being convicted, but mostly these were the ones who had been foolish enough to plead guilty. But the more Portland saw Nat Blum on the stand, the less credible his testimony became. Lotan never did get convicted.
There was, however, one exception to this pattern. The government had the goods on William Dunbar, and he knew it. He'd gotten off on the coattails of Lotan in the first trial, but there would have been nothing any lawyer or influential friend would be able to do for him at the next one. Accordingly, Dunbar left for Hong Kong shortly after the first trial commenced on what he claimed was a business trip, and remained there in exile, knowing that he'd be arrested stepping off the boat if he should ever return. Twenty years later, in November 1913, President Wilson pardoned him, and he was able to finally come home.
A few months after the first trial, the impounded Wilmington burned to the waterline and sank in the river, and several months after that, the Haytian Republic was bought up by the Seattle operators and renamed the S.S. Portland. There is a distinct wistful quality to newspaper coverage of both these events. Notorious as both ships were, Portlanders were sad to see them go.
(Sources: Agony of Choice: Matsuoka Yosuke and the Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1880-1946, a book by David J. Lu published in 2002 by Lexington Books; "Yosuke Matsuoka: The Far-Western Roots of a World-Political Vision," an article by Masaharu Ano published in the Summer 1997 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; Wicked Portland, a book by Finn J.D. John published in 2012 by The History Press)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.